Saddam outfoxes the west again

Why does the US persist in a policy that makes the Iraqi leader stronger, richer and more popular th

A state of war exists between the United States and Iraq. American warplanes patrol the northern and southern skies, and Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries take futile pot-shots at them. The F-16s fire back. Iraq announces, as it did on Monday, the heroic deaths of martyrs who defended the homeland from foreign aggression. The kill ratio cannot be measured since, however many Iraqis die, the number of Americans killed remains zero. Why, most of the world wonders, does the US persist in a battle that divides the international community, wins sympathy for the mass murderer Saddam Hussein and compels more of the world's Muslims to want to shoot American diplomats and tourists?

President Bill Clinton and his administration, like the Republicans before them, insist that their battle is with the Iraqi regime, not the Iraqi people. Washington duly proclaims its intention not to harm Iraq's civilians even as it imposes economic sanctions that malnourish them and leave them without medicines and anaesthetics. It declares it has their interests at heart on every occasion it drops bombs on them. In the four-day aerial barrage before Christmas, at least 68 non-combatant Iraqis died. So far as anyone can tell, Saddam Hussein is still alive. And in this war, brother, the bad guy's winning.

In the eight years since Iraq retreated from occupied Kuwait, the US has repeatedly announced its three objectives: enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions; elimination of Iraq's arms of mass destruction - chemical and biological weapons, long-range delivery systems and nuclear research; and, finally, the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. Yet the US calls on this very regime to obey international law without offering it any incentive to do so. Further, it does not say whether a future Iraqi government would face the same restrictions on its military and economic power.

For eight years, the US has enforced economic sanctions that have starved, impoverished and destroyed the health of the Iraqi people with whom it says it has no quarrel. For eight years, the US has reserved the right to bomb Iraq. Knowing this, Saddam provokes America to generate support for his leadership in the Arab world. For eight years, the US has given money, weapons and training to Iraqi dissidents in the north, who have as little hope of defeating Saddam as they have of uniting their disparate forces. By any measure, the past eight years have constituted a long term of failure. So, what is the fall-back position? Well, more of the same. And if that fails again, well, even more of more of the same.

The only successful aspect of the policy came from the Unscom inspections, however much Saddam's minions impeded and delayed them. On Unscom's own analysis, its inspectors have found and destroyed most of Saddam's stocks. Unscom was fortunate to have received information on weapons programmes from some of their architects. Among these were two of Saddam's sons-in-law, who foolishly returned home from exile in Amman to be murdered for treason. Another was Dr Nassir al-Hindawi, an American-trained microbiologist who turned over to Unscom most of the documents on the germ warfare programme he had himself instigated. Saddam has now arrested Hindawi, another unprotected victim of co-operation with the UN and the US. Others were the Kurds and Shi-ites who worked for the CIA in the northern city of Irbil, where American forces turned a blind eye to their slaughter by the Iraqi army. Only an exceptionally brave Iraqi technician would dare to tell the US or UN what he knows about weapons, so long as the US, which has not even asked to speak to Hindawi, lacks the means or willingness to spare him the torments of Saddam's torture chambers.

The US has repeatedly undermined Unscom's credibility, particularly by permitting one American inspector, Major Scott Ridder, to share his discoveries with the Israelis. This was well beyond Unscom's terms of reference, and the Iraqis reacted accordingly. The US dealt Unscom its death-blow with the four-day pre-Ramadan missile and bomb display. Tariq Aziz, the moustachioed mouthpiece of the regime, predictably announced after the bombardment that the weapons inspectors could not return. What can the US do about it? Bomb again? Sooner or later, someone in Washington will realise that Saddam, who provokes the attacks, needs them. They cost him nothing. The populace in other Arab countries rallies to him, rather than their own leaders, as the champion who faces down the west.

Over eight years, far longer than the UN expected, UN inspectors have significantly reduced Iraq's stores of weapons. Iraq has been unable to obtain a significant supply of military spare parts or to modernise its armed forces. The army, already weakened by the allied onslaught of 1991, is using arms that have become obsolete in the last eight years. The US speaks of containment, but the word has become meaningless. There is nothing to contain. Iraq cannot invade Iran or Kuwait again, because its armed forces are no match for the Iranian army or for the American forces protecting Kuwait.

The Iraqi army, as a threat to world peace, is a spent force. It has reverted to the role which the British created for it in the 1920s: saving the regime in Baghdad from the restive tribes who reject its legitimacy. The Iraqi army was never intended for an offensive mission, of the kind it engaged in when it invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait ten years later. Its primary purpose, as with almost all other Arab armies, was controlling the natives so the rulers could sell cheap oil without hindrance to the west. The Iraqi army's excessively enthusiastic pursuit of its mission followed the precedent set by its British mentors, who introduced the concept of aerial bombardment of civilians to achieve political goals. Indeed, the US and Britain continue that policy today.

"It is not at all clear that Saddam Hussein wants a change," an official in the UN Secretariat said. "The present set-up suits him. It wins him sympathy. He makes money out of sanctions. Periodic bombing improves his political position. He's keeping the US in a state of rage." If America's outrageous conduct is good for Saddam, why doesn't President Clinton adopt some other strategy? If Saddam does not want a change, why should the US serve his interests by pursuing a policy that has failed? It may be that the policy suits Clinton, giving him a place to seem tough and presidential amid his ridiculous scandals. Or it may be, as the UN official speculated, that "the US cannot admit failure".

Unicef reports that sanctions have resulted in the deaths of about 5,000 Iraqi children a month for eight years. Saddam may be as responsible for their deaths as the US, but the US could shift responsibility for the suffering squarely on to Saddam by scrapping the sanctions and enforcing a ban on military supplies. Until then, Iraqi suffering is winning the propaganda war for Saddam at home, in most of the third world, Russia, China and much of Europe.

Meanwhile, is anyone defusing tension in the Middle East, reducing arms levels and preventing the Arabs from arming themselves so that Israel can feel safe at last? Up to a point. Last month, the Gulf state of Qatar staged a trade fair for companies selling the latest in military and police technology to the Arab world. Most of the states that complain about the proliferation of weaponry in the Arab world sent representatives, who did an estimated $800 million-worth of business in tanks, armoured vehicles, assault rifles, surveillance equipment and bullet-proof vests. One popular item was the life-saving jacket worn by Mikhail Gorbachev in the days when he was so respected in his own country that someone might have killed him. No Arab head of state should be without one. American, British, French and German firms were there. So was SIBAT, the military export organisation from Israel. SIBAT was offering, in the words of Middle East Magazine, "unique and low-armoured fighting vehicles and a six-wheeled drive vehicle called Raider with a similarly unique rear pivoting double axle platform able to gain traction in most driving situations . . ." The containment doctrine has been adapted to suit altered circumstances. Israel is no longer an official enemy of most of the Gulf states. American arms manufacturers can no longer persuade the sheikhs to buy their goods, and thus send oil dollars back to America, by dangling the Soviet threat in front of them. So Iraq is a convenient enemy indeed. Did I say the policy was failing? Perhaps not.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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